British Constitution

Politics B- Assessment task 1 May 2004


The British Constitution is a set of laws on how the country is governed and is often referred to as the uncodified constitution meaning, it can be found in a number of different documents however, is not entirely written down. Supporters of our uncodified constitution believe that this current way allows for any flexibility and change to occur without too many problems. There are those however who believe that a fully written, codified constitution is the best option as this would allow the general public as a whole, access to it instead of just the experts and politicians.

The British Constitution has two basic principles: The Rule of Law and the Supremacy of Parliament. The Rule of Law emphasised by philosopher A.V. Dicey is considered an important part of British politics. It involves everyone being subject to the law and being treated equally and makes sure that status and your position within society makes no difference to the way you are treated within the legal system. It also embraces the entitlement of everyone to a free, fair and open trial and no ones allowed to be punished in any way, unless it can be proven they have broken the law. This idea however has been directly challenged by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett’s proposals on curbing terrorism. Mr. Blunkett wants to make a law similar to internment, which would allow police to arrest suspected terrorists on the likelihood of committing a terrorist crime without absolute proof. He also wants these trials to be behind ‘closed doors’ and with vetted judges and lawyers. The main critical feature to the Rule of Law is that individual liberties depend on it. Its success depends on the role of trial by jury and the impartiality of judges. The second basic principle of the British Constitution is the Supremacy of Parliament. This dominant theme in British politics stemmed from the English Civil War and has expanded ever since. It involves, the Members of Parliament, who represent the public via representative democracy, being given the power to access, pass or reject legislation. The Supremacy of Parliament can only possibly threatened by certain aspects of the European Commission and other European Union institutions. Parliament can pass, revoke or alter any of Britain’s laws; this is one of the major powers that a government has. Parliament also have the power (after going through its own parliamentary processes) of altering any of its own laws. If a government has a healthy majority, such as the current Labour Government does, then there is little that can be done to stop it passing laws. However, because Britain is now part of the European Union, the European Council can pass laws that Britain must to implement, such as, certain environmental legislation and the Working Times Directive (WTD). The WTD sets down the number of hours people are allowed to work in a week and the number of breaks allowed. Although the UK Government was against this directive, because of they are part of the EU; it must be implemented in this country. The European Courts are however unlikely to decide that a law, that has already gone through the political process in Britain, is illegal. Once this happens, then arguably the need for an independent British legal system will be redundant. Many fear that laws, taxes and the general way of life will in the future be determined by a European directive and Britain will lose all forms of independence in all sectors of the Government.

There are however certain limitations to the Supremacy of Parliament. The Government, even with a healthy majority have to be sensitive to the opinions of the public simply because there of the general election which is held at the end of every five years. One of the reasons put forward for the heavy defeat of the Tories in 1997 was that they had lost touch with what the people wanted; lost touch with public opinion. Therefore, the theories behind the Supremacy of Parliament where a Government can do as it wishes do in fact have limitations.

Within Britain, the idea of the party system essentially means the way the political parties interact with one another within the politically competitive nature of Westminster and